Gaming evolution: Uno

Uno_GameWhen it comes to board games everyone knows, Uno is certainly a family classic that’s on everyone’s lips. The game is simplicity itself, as players try to get out of their hand of cards while simultaneously making their opponents miserable and further from that goal. This delightful schadenfreude of making players pick up additional cards, skipping them, or bouncing the order of play back around the table puts the game in a category of card games called “Take That” games, where half of the fun is ruining your friends chances of winning.

As simple and universal as Uno is, it is a card game that doesn’t have a ton of meat on its bones. There are some decisions of when to use which card, but in general you either have a hand that you can play from, or you don’t and you have to draw. Much of the game ultimately comes down to luck, and this factor increases as more players come into the mix.

Luckily, small card games are one area where the board game hobby has flourished in recent decades. This is also one of my favorite categories of games because they are usually short, affordable and easy to get to the table at the beginning or end of the night. There are a few games in particular that really bring that Uno vibe, but have a couple of wrinkles that give them a bit more kick than the old classic.

StrawThe most Uno like modern game, right down to the reverse card is called Straw. The game is about the straw the broke the camel’s back, which according to this game happens at exactly 50 pounds. Players go around the table playing cards from their hands that represent various objects/weights that they are placing on the camel. Most objects make the weight go up, but there are, of course, magic carpets that can make the weight go down, and magical lamps that can be any weight 1-10. Much like a game of hot potato, the goal is to NOT be the player that reaches or crosses that 50 point threshold.

Straw is a lot like a game of hot potato with a poor camel’s back on the line.

The game happens over several rounds, and all players except the one that went over score the cards in their hands as points based on the weight. And that is the brilliant thing, as heavier things score more points, but are also the most risky to have in your hand as the number starts to climb. So there is an element of risk vs reward as the total climbs, do you keep your high cards, or try to dump them before you are stuck going over the limit? This simple tweak and the fact that there are several hands to even out the luck give this game a great Uno feel with hilarious moments of disaster for players at the table. And to wrap it all together there is a shoot the moon element with the titular “Straw.” If a player plays this card when the camel is at exactly 50 they are the ONLY player to score that round. Nothing feels better than escaping the jaws of defeat with a straw and rocketing ahead of the other players.

Another game that really captures the “Take That” nature of Uno is No Thanks. The game is simplicity itself to play but has some real teeth to it. Players start with hand of bidding chips that they use to NOT take cards that are dealt to the center of the table. Cards run from 3 to 35 and the goal is to have the LOWEST number of points at the end of a round. Player place bidding tokens on the current card up for bid, and the tokens are worth negative points, which can help you lower your score. Since you want to take as few card as possible, bidding continues around the table for several rounds. At a certain point players won’t be able to pass anymore, or the amount of cubes on the card will offset the damage enough that it is worth taking. This continues till all card are out, and then players score.

Just some number card and plastic bidding chips make for a great “take that” style game.

The real secret of the game is how it handles sequential numbers. If a player has a 17 and a 19 in front of them, they have 36 points. However, if you have a sequence of numbers, say 17, 18 and 19, you just take the lower number is your points. So suddenly, by taking the 18, a player actually improves their position, where that number would be poisonous to anyone else at the table. This gives the game a great push your luck element, as players will sometimes take a number hoping to round out the sequence later. And it also makes cards more or less valuable to each player, giving the main bidding aspect of the game a lot of depth. And just like Uno there is a lot of fun to be had in passing disastrous cards onto your fellow players at the table.

paradeFinally there is one game that has more or less replaced Uno for me. That game is Parade, a benign looking game that has a strange Alice in Wonderland theme. But do not be deceived, behind the tea party with the mad hatter there is cutthroat game of dodging points and passing them onto your opponents. The game has cards in six suits number 0-10, with each suit represented by a color and character from Wonderland.  Each turn you play a card from a hand of five out to a line of cards in the center of the table, the “Parade.” Depending on the card you play you work to avoid taking cards from the parade that are lower than the card you played or the same suit, as each card counts as it’s face value, and the lowest points wins. However, as players continue to dodge taking cards, the line gets longer and longer, and eventually it becomes impossible to not take a few cards.

The parade grows longer and the risk of taking cards grows greater.
The parade grows longer and the risk of taking cards grows greater.

This is where the key rule of the game shines, if you take a majority of any suit, each of the cards in that suit count as one point for you instead of their face value. Suddenly, taking the most of one color of cards as you can becomes a more viable strategy, for if you have the most you can turns those high face values into something much lower. And as the last play of the game players must add two cards of their hands simultaneously to their score pile, and this last adjustment can swing the majorities and lay waste to other player’s plans. The whole game feels a lot like a limbo as players must balance when to dodge cards and when to go all in for a certain suit. Once again there is that playful viciousness as players one by one dodge taking cards and you must navigate your hand effectively to dodge taking some yourself.

A night of Uno can still be a blast, and it’s a game that everybody knows. But next time you want easy to play card game that has a bit of an aggressive edge definitely take a look these fantastic games.


Gaming evolution: The Game of Life

GameOfLifeI have many fond memories of playing The Game of Life as a kid in my friend’s basement. Countless hours, and countless lives being a police officer, doctor, rock star and more. The game was simplicity itself to play, and as a kid living out exciting lives, having kids, and buying a house was often like a game of make believe, just with a bit more structure and a winner at the end of the road. The game actually goes as far back as 1860 with a version by Milton Bradley himself called The Checkered Game of Life, but the modern format that most people know came about in 1960. Taking on the popular format of Monopoly, Sorry, and other games Life is a simple roll and move game. There are some fun choices, like whether to go to college or not, what career to choose and what house to buy, but for the most part life is a game of consequences based on the spaces that you land on. Some of these spots on the board are fun, as players get married, and often fill up the back of their peg car with kids. Others are less fun, like a skiing accident that requires you to pay the player who’s the doctor, or the inevitable taxes space.

The fun of the game was not always in how it played, but in the stories that it spun. Players sat down at the game to see what happened just as much as they did to see who won. It took a while for modern games to really capture this story telling aspect, but a new game coming out this week packs a lot more decisions Pursuit1AND more story into the box. That game is The Pursuit of Happiness. It released at the German Spiel gaming fair last October, but is making it’s way to the U.S. this month. In The Pursuit of Happiness players start as a teenager, and round by round make their way to old age and eventually, death. The goal of the game is not to have the most money, as in Life, but to have the most long term happiness.

Project cards with different levels to accomplish.

The game really captures the theme by getting right down to every day life. There are cards that represent projects, possessions, jobs, and love interests. Players can select whatever action they’d like on a given turn, with the only restriction being life resources, the

The all important worldly possessions.
The all important worldly possessions.

complexities of every day living being boiled down to influence, money, ideas, and knowledge. Unlike The Game of Life which feels like a roller coaster ride, here you are charting out exactly how your character lives their life each turn. Do you want to be an artist with a giant comic collection and a yacht? You can do that! Do you want to be a politician who eats healthy and lives a life of solitude till and old age? You can do that too. It all depends on what cards come out, and if you have collected the right resources to make it happen.

All love interests are double sided card with a male and female version on opposite sides.
All love interests are double sided card with a male and female version on opposite sides.

The cards themselves are not surface level. They have depth, and degrees, just like real life. You can buy bigger and bigger boats, but they require maintenance costs. You can move forward in your relationship, and even have a family together, but partners have expectations that you have to meet. You can change jobs or get promoted, but those have requirements too. This depth really gives the game a narrative arc because the planning and strategy that goes into each card has effects on other aspects of your fictional life.

The game in play. Actions on the right get you cards on the left, which in turn provide their own additional actions.
The game in play. Actions on the right get you cards on the left, which in turn provide their own additional actions.

There are also group projects that multiple players can take part in, like being in a band, or running a restaurant together. The sense of choice in this game is immense, and consequently the stories of each game very wildly. To push the play in a certain direction each game has overall life goals that all players are trying for. While the game of life was a fun ride, and still brings me a lot of nostalgia, The Pursuit of Happiness is a game that is engaging both in how it plays and the stories that it tells.

I am really looking forward to the fun and sort of role playing that comes with this kind of theme. It can be fun to daydream a bit and play out a different life. Where The Game of Life happens to you, Pursuit of Happiness gives you fun and interesting choices that make this “what-if” theme a lot more compelling.